Citation Culture Clash

Almost anyone who has done a research paper can tell you at least a little bit about either MLA, APA or Chicago citation style.

The three styles, similar in many respects, all require a student or researcher to locate a wide range of information on the materials they wish to cite and then put them in a special format, littered with quotes, semicolons, underlines and commas.

These styles made the process of citing sources such a complicated process that several sites and software applications were created to help ease the frustration. Despite that, many students and researchers, myself included, spent long nights trying to  piece together their works cited page, working around or looking up missing information and wading through the endless array of formatting rules.

With the Web though, the works cited page got a makeover. The kludge that was an MLA reference page was replaced by a very simple technological advancement, the hyperlink.

However, despite the obvious advantages of the link as a means of citation, many traditional publishers, still remembering their classic works cited pages, refused to let go of the older ways. This has created a conflict that, most likely, will continue to grow as more traditionalists embrace the Web, creating a citation culture clash that could create many headaches for bloggers and Webmasters.

The Purpose of MLA

Despite what many students might believe, the traditional citation styles were not torture devices designed solely to frustrate researchers. They served, and continue to serve, a very valid purpose.

The idea behind them was to enable anyone following up on the paper to easily find the works that were cited in it to both validate the existence and the veracity of the sources. All of the requirements (publisher, year of publication, title, etc.) were designed to help someone walk into a library and find the exact same page of the exact same book, journal or magazine as the original researcher.

While that was important in the print world, with multiple versions of the same book, countless tomes sharing the same title and an endless organizational structure, the Web solved the problem of finding a specific page with a simple technological achievement, the hyperlink.

A hyperlink literally puts the cited source a click away and is almost ideal for citing Web pages and other online resources. It also works well for books, since most books are sold online somewhere, and even journal articles and other traditionally print publications are moving online, at least in some capacity.

Rather than publishing an odd assortment of data in a set format, expending a great deal of energy along the way, and requiring users to do the leg work themselves, a simple link makes life easier for everyone. It’s unobtrusive, allows immediate access to the source material and encourages readers to visit the original site (unlike traditional citation formats that can do quite the opposite).

Many, however, don’t feel that the traditional link is adequate citation and feel short changed by what has come the standard currency in the blogging world.

That is where our culture clash begins.

Citation Gone Wild

When Bill at posted a lengthy entry on how hormones affect breast cancer, he did everything within the bounds of what most bloggers consider ethical. Though he reused a noticeable amount of content from other sites, he blockquoted all reused text and surrounded it with original content (over half of the article was his own) and he offered clear links and high praise for the articles cited.

However, a month and a half after the article went up, Bill received a sternly worded letter from one of the sources he cited, Women to Women. In the letter, which was sent by the site’s "Compliance Administrator", Bill was threatened with DMCA action unless he altered the citation to include the following:

  1. Correct article title (verbatim); Causes of breast cancer – the estrogen controversy
  2. The author of the article, i.e., Dixie Mills, MD, FACS
  3. The following copyright clause, with an active hyperlink back to our site from "Copyright 2004 Women All rights reserved."

(Note: I made minor punctuation changes to the quote for clarity)

While the site took no issue with the actual reuse of its work and its citation requirements are nowhere near as draconian as the traditional MLA style ones, there is still no mention of them in the site’s copyright policy and they would add very little information that could not be gained by quickly clicking the link and following up on the source.

In short, all of the information requested in the letter would have been superfluous and would have done little, if anything, to further promote Women To Women’s site. However, it would have done a great deal to clutter up the original article (unless, perhaps, it was added as a traditional footnote) and hinder the reading of it.

While it’s true that Women To Women has the right to ask for whatever citation they desire for reuse of their material, at least for uses that would likely go beyond what is acceptable by fair use standards, one has to wonder how a blogger is supposed to follow an unwritten rule and, if the citation rules are followed, what the potential for benefit is worth the trouble and what the potential impact for other bloggers might be.

A Different World

Imagine, for a second, if bloggers had to adhere to traditional citation rules when dealing with works cited in their entries. Nearly every entry would need to come with footnotes, bloggers would spend countless hours assembling their works cited information and users would, most likely, be actively discouraged from following through with any offered links.

The rapid pace and largely informal world of blogging wouldn’t be ground to a halt, but would definitely be slowed. Fewer entries would be cited, due to time constraints if nothing else, posts would be slower coming and bloggers would be more reluctant to build upon other’s works.

While it wouldn’t kill blogging, it would certainly change it and hamper both its community feel and its timeliness.


In the end, Bill has decided to let the incident go without making the requested changes and has moved on to other topics. So far there has been no follow up from Women To Women. It seems that, at this point, the incident might have been a case of mistaken identity or, as Bill put it in his comments, a "poor form letter".

However, the incident does raise serious questions about what will happen when traditional publishers and those that share that particular mindset meet up with bloggers and their, very different, conventions.

While everyone involved seems to agree that attribution is important and that properly citing sources is critical, the hows and wheres of the issue remain to be resolved.

This will, every likely, be a point of contention for many on the Web over the next few months and years.

[tags]Plagiarism, MLA, APA, Chicago, Citing, Content Theft, Copyright Infringement[/tags]

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